Edward Harrison Barker.

Wanderings by southern waters, eastern Aquitaine online

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according to Caesar, the fountain at Uxellodunum was so perennially
abundant that when he drew off the water by tunnelling, the Gauls
recognised in this disaster the intervention of the gods.

Capdenac appears to have given the English a great deal of trouble,
which the natural strength of the place fully explains. It must have
been a fortress of the first order in the Middle Ages, and would be so
to-day, if the French thought it worth while to use it in a military
sense; but, happily for the inhabitants of this part of France, their
territory now lies far from the theatre of any war that is likely to
occur. A charter by Philippe le Long, dated 1320, another by King
John, and a third by Charles VII., recognise the immunity of the
people of Capdenac from all public charges on account of the
resistance which they constantly opposed to the English. The rock
must, nevertheless, have fallen into the hands of a company attached
to the British cause, for the Count of Armagnac bought the place in
1381 of a band of so-called English _routiers_. Sully lived there
after the death of Henry IV., and the house that he occupied still
exists.

According to a local tradition, Capdenac was on the point of being
captured by the English, when it was saved from this fate by a
stratagem. The defenders were starving, and the besiegers were relying
upon famine to reduce them. In order to make the English believe that
the place was still well provisioned, a pig was given a very full meal
of all the corn that could be scraped together and then pushed over
the side of the rock in a cautious manner, so that the animal might
appear to be the victim of its own indiscretion. The pig fulfilled
expectations by splitting open when it struck the ground, and thus
revealed the corn that was in its body. When the English saw this,
they said: 'If the men of Capdenac can afford to feed their swine on
wheat, they must still have plenty for themselves.' Discouraged by
this reflection, they raised the siege. When they went away there was
not an ounce of bread left to divide amongst the garrison.

A market was being held at Capdenac - the lower town - as I left it.
Bunches of fowls tied together by the legs were dangling from the
hands of a score or so of peasant women standing in line. The wretched
birds had ceased to complain, and even to wriggle; but although, with
their toes upward and their beaks downward, life to them could not
have looked particularly rosy, they seemed to watch with keen interest
all that was going on. Only when they had their breasts well pinched
by critical fingers did they struggle against their fate. The legs of
these fowls are frequently broken, but the peasants only think of
their own possible loss; and women are every bit as indifferent to the
sufferings of the lower animals as men.

There was a sharp wrangle going on in the Languedocian dialect over a
coin - a Papal franc - that somebody to whom it had been offered angrily
rejected. Here I may say that one of the small troubles of my life in
this district came from accepting coins which I could not get rid of.
As a rule, the native here turns over a piece of money several times
before he satisfies himself that no objection can be brought against
it; but if, in the hurry of business, the darkness of night, or the
trustfulness inspired by a little extra worship of Bacchus, he should
happen to take a Papal, Spanish, Roumanian, or other coin that is
unpopular, he puts it on one side for the first simpleton or stranger
who may have dealings with him. Thus, without intending it, I came to
possess a very interesting numismatical collection, which I most
unconscientiously, but with little success, tried to scatter.

I made my way down the valley of the Lot, taking the work easily,
stopping at one place long enough to digest impressions before pushing
on towards a fresh point. This valley is so strangely picturesque, so
full of the curiosities of nature and bygone art, that if I had not
been a loiterer before, I should have learnt to loiter here.

Keeping on the Aveyron side of the river, I soon reached the village
of St. Julien d'Empare, where almost every house had somewhat of a
castellated appearance, owing to the dovecot tower which occupied one
angle and rose far above the roof. One of these houses had two rows of
dormer windows, covered by little gables with very long eaves in the
high-pitched roof, whose red tiles were well toned by time. The
tower-like pigeon-house, with extinguisher roof, stood at one end upon
projecting beams, and the pigeons kept going in and coming out of the
holes in their two-storied mansion. One sees dovecots everywhere in
this district, and most of them are two or three centuries old. Some
are attached to houses, and others are isolated on the hillsides
amongst the vines. When in the latter position, they are generally
round, and are built on such a scale that they really look like
towers.

There were grape-gatherers in the vineyards, but they had to search
for the fruit. The wine grown upon these hills by the Lot has been
famous from the days of the Romans; but there is very little of it
left. There is, however, a consoling side to every misfortune. A man
of Figeac told me that since the vines had failed in the district the
death-rate had diminished remarkably.

'Why?' I asked.

'Why?' replied he, with a sad smile, 'because in the happy times
everybody drank wine at all hours of the day; but now, in these
miserable times, nearly everybody drinks water.'

The new state of things would be still more satisfactory from a
teetotal point of view if Nature were less niggardly of water in these
parts. In some localities it has to be strictly economized, and this
is done in the case of streams by using it first for the exterior, and
afterwards for the interior needs of man. I, having still some English
prejudices, would rather run all the risks incurred by drinking wine,
than swallow any more than I am obliged of the rinsings of dirty
linen.

Having crossed the Lot by a suspension bridge, a roadside inn enticed
me with its little terrace, where there were many hanging plants and
flowers, and a wild fig-tree that had climbed up from the rock below,
so that it could look into people's glasses and listen to their talk
in that pleasant bower. I might have lingered here too long had it not
been for the wasps, which were even a greater nuisance than the flies.

To reach the village of Frontenac I took a little path leading through
maize-fields by the river's side. The maize was ready for the harvest,
and the long leaves had lost nearly all their greenness. The lightest
breath of air made each plant rustle like a paper scarecrow. The river
was fringed with low, triggy willows and a multitude of herbs, rich in
seeds, but poor in flowers. Among those still in bloom were the
evening primrose, soapwort, and marjoram. The river was as blue as the
heaven, and on each side rose steep hills, wooded or vine-clad, with
the yellow or reddish rock upon the ridges glowing against the hot
sky. As I was moving south-west I had the afternoon sun full in the
face. The lizards that darted across the path, raising little clouds
of dust in their hurry, found this glare quite to their taste, but it
was too much for me, and when at length I saw a leafy walnut tree I
lay down in the shade until the fiery sun began to touch the high
woods, the river, and the yellow maize-stalks with the milder tones of
evening.

A narrow grassy lane between tall hedgerows sprinkled over with
innumerable glistening blackberries led me to Frontenac, a village
upon the rocky hillside. Here is a little church partly raised upon
the site of a Roman or Gallo-Roman temple. A broken column left
standing was included in the wall of the Romanesque apse, upon the
lower masonry of which both pagan and Christian hands have worked. The
nave has been rebuilt in modern times, but in the open space before
the entrance Roman coffins crop up above the rough paving, separated
from each other only by a few feet. There is a stone coffin lying
right across the doorway, and the _curé_, whom I drew into
conversation, confided to me, with a comical smile upon his pale dark
face, that he had raised a fragment of the lid to see if anything more
enduring than man had been left there, but that he found nothing but
very fine dust. Every bone had become powder. This priest was a
companionable man, and he must have looked upon me with a less
suspicious eye than most people hereabouts, for he invited me into his
house to take a _petit verre_ with him. But the sun was getting near
the end of his journey, and I had to fare on foot to the next village;
so I thought it better to decline the offer.

The next village was St. Pierre-Toirac, also built upon the hillside
above the Lot. It is a larger place than Frontenac, and must have been
of considerable importance in the Middle Ages, to judge from its
fortified church, whose high gloomy walls give it the appearance of a
veritable stronghold. Some of the inhabitants say that it was built by
the English, but the architecture does not indicate that such was the
case. The interior is a beautiful example of the Romanesque style. The
capitals of the columns are fit to serve as models, so strongly
typical are the designs, and so exquisite is their workmanship. It is
probable that the walls of the church were raised, and that it was
turned into a fortress during the religious wars of the thirteenth
century between Catholics and Albigenses, which explain the existence
of so many fortified churches in Languedoc and Guyenne, as well as so
many ruins.

I had reached this church by an old archway, whose origin was
evidently defensive, and crossing the dim and silent square,
surrounded by mediaeval houses, some half ruinous, and all more or
less adorned with pellitory, ivy-linaria, and other wall-plants which
had fixed their roots between the gaping stones. I passed through
another archway, and stopped at a terrace belonging to a ruined
château or country-house. Here I was looking at the valley of the Lot
in the warm after-glow of sunset, when an elderly gentleman came up to
me and disturbed my contemplative mood by asking me not very
courteously if I wanted to see anybody. I was somewhat taken aback to
find such an important-looking person in such a dilapidated place. I
tried, however, not to appear too much overcome, and explained that it
was only with the intention of seeing the picturesque that I had found
my way to that ruinous spot. The agreeable person who had questioned
me now let me understand that it was his spot, and informed me that
nobody was allowed to see it 'sans être presenté.' Then, looking at me
very fiercely, he said:

'Are you an Englishman or a German?'

'An Englishman,' I replied, whereupon his ferocious expression relaxed
considerably, but he did not become genial.

I retired from his ruin considerably disgusted with its owner, who
contrasted badly with all Frenchmen in his social position whom I had
previously met. I asked a woman who he was, and she replied that all
she knew about him was that he was an 'espèce de noble.' Her cruelty
was unintentional. The next morning I learnt from an old Crimean
soldier, who knew I was English because he had drained many a glass
with my fellow-countrymen, that the magnates of the village had held a
consultation overnight upon the advisability of coming down upon me in
a body and asking me for my papers. Nothing came of it, which was well
for me, for I had come away without my papers.

There was rain that night, and when morning came it had changed the
face of the world. The sun was shining again and warmly, but summer
had gone and autumn had come. Upon the rocky slopes the maples were on
fire; in the valley the large leaves of the walnut-trees mimicked the
sunshine, and by the river-side the tall poplars, as they bowed to the
water deities, cast upon the mirror of many tones the image of a
trembling golden leaf repeated beyond all power of numbering. A little
rain had been enough to produce this magical change. It had opened the
great feast of colour that brings the year to its gray, sad close.

But the sky was brilliantly blue when I left St. Pierre-Toirac. The
next village was Laroque-Toirac. The houses were clustered near the
foot of an escarped hill, where thinly-scattered pines relieved the
glare of the naked limestone. Upon a precipitous rock dominating the
village is a castle, the lower works of which belong to the Feudal
Ages, the upper to the Renaissance epoch - a combination very frequent
in this district. The mullioned windows and the graceful balustrade,
carried along a high archway, are in strong contrast to the stern and
dark masonry of the feudal stronghold. This picturesque incongruity
reaches its climax in the lofty round tower upon which a dovecot has
been grafted, whose extinguisher-roof, with long drooping eaves, is
quite out of keeping with the machicolations which remain a little
below the line of the embattled parapet that has disappeared. The
castle is now used for the schools of the commune, and a score or so
of little boys and girls whom I met on my way up the rough path stared
at me with much astonishment. I climbed to a bastion of the outer
works, where a fig-tree, growing from the old wall, and reaching above
it, softened the horror of the precipice; for such it really was. The
masonry was a continuation of one of those walls of rock which give
such a distinctive character: to the geological formation of this
region. The village lay far below - a broken surface of tiled roofs,
sloping rapidly towards the Lot, itself a broad ribbon of many blended
colours, winding through the sunlit plain. The castle of Laroque
belonged to the Cardaillac family. In 1342 it was stormed and taken by
Bertegot Lebret, captain of a strong company of English, who had
established their headquarters at Gréalou.

As I approached Montbrun, the next village, the rocks which hemmed in
the valley became more boldly escarped. In their lower part the beds
of lias were shown with singular regularity. Box and pines and sumach
were the chief vegetation upon the stony slopes, where the scattered
masses of dark-green foliage gave by contrast a whiter glitter to the
stones. Montbrun, like so many of the little towns and villages
hereabouts, is built upon rocks immediately below a protecting
stronghold, or, rather, what was one centuries ago. The windows of
some of the dwellings look out upon the sheer precipice. The vine
clambers over ruined houses and old walls built on to the rock, and
seemingly a part of it. Of the mediaeval castle little is left besides
the keep. The Marquis de Cadaillac, to whom it belonged, strengthened
the fortifications with the hope that the stronghold would be able to
resist any attack by the English; but it was nevertheless captured by
them.

After leaving Montbrun I saw nothing more of civilization until I came
near a woman seated on a doorstep, and engaged in the exciting
occupation of fleaing a cat. She held the animal upon its back between
her knees, and was so engrossed by the pleasures of the chase that she
scarcely looked up to answer a question I put to her. The word _café_
painted upon a piece of board hung over another door enticed me
inside, for it was now nearly midday, and I had been in search of the
picturesque since seven o'clock, sustained by nothing more substantial
than a bowl of black coffee and a piece of bread. This is the only
breakfast that one can expect in a rural auberge of Southern France.
If milk is wanted in the coffee it must be asked for over-night, and
even then it is very doubtful if the cow will be found in time. To ask
for butter with the bread would be looked upon as a sign of eccentric
gluttony, but to cap this request with a demand for bacon and eggs at
seven in the morning, as a man fresh from England might do with
complete unconsciousness of his depravity, would be to openly confess
one's self capable of any crime. People who travel should never be
slaves to any notions on eating and drinking, for such obstinacy
brings its own punishment.

A stout woman with a coloured silk kerchief on her head met me with a
good-tempered face, and, after considering what she could do for me in
the way of lunch, said, as though a bright idea had suddenly struck
her:

'I have just killed some geese; would monsieur like me to cook him
some of the blood?'.

'Merci!' I replied. 'Please think of something else.'

An Englishman may possibly become reconciled to snails and frogs as
food, but never, I should say, to goose's blood. In about twenty
minutes a meal was ready for me, composed of soup containing great
pieces of bread, lumps of pumpkin and haricots; minced pork that had
been boiled with the soup in a goose's neck, then a veal cutlet,
covered with a thick layer of chopped garlic. Horace says that this
herb is only fit for the stomachs of reapers, but every man who loves
garlic in France is not a reaper. Strangers to this region had better
reconcile themselves both to its perfume and its flavour without loss
of time, for of all the seasoning essences provided by nature for the
delight of mankind garlic is most esteemed here. Those who have a
horror of it would fare very badly at a _table-d'hôte_ at Cahors, for
its refined odour rises as soon as the soup is brought in, and does
not leave until after the salad. Even then the unconverted say that it
is still present. To cultivate a taste for garlic is, therefore,
essential to happiness here.

I crossed a toll-bridge over the river just below Cajarc, and again
entered the department of the Aveyron, my object being to ascend the
valley of a tributary of the Lot, to a spot where it flows out of a
pool of unknown depth, called the Gouffre de Lantouy. The road passed
under the village of Savagnac, built upon the hillside. A Renaissance
castle with sham machicolations, little chambers. with their
projecting floors resting on brackets turrets on _culs de lampe_ and
with extinguisher roofs, and a high terrace overgrown with vines and
fig-trees left to fight their own battle, lorded it over all the other
houses, like a sunflower in an onion-bed. But the castle, although it
gives itself such aristocratic airs, is, in these days, nothing but a
farmhouse, sacks of maize being now stored in rooms where ladies once
touched the lute with white fingers, and where gentlemen may have
crumpled their frills while swearing eternal love upon their knees.
The little cemetery adjoining the château has swallowed up the great
and the lowly century after century, and the rank grass, now sprinkled
with the lingering flowers of summer, barely covers their mingled
bones. The old gravestones, left undisturbed, have sunk into the soil
nearly out of sight. Such is the ending of all that is human.

A little beyond this village a peasant woman, whom I met picking up
walnuts from the road that was strewn with them, lifted her
wide-brimmed straw hat to me as I passed. This was indeed polite. I
now left the road, and followed a lane by the stream that flows out of
the _gouffre_. This valley is narrow enough to be called a gorge, and
the stony hills on either side presented a picture of utter barrenness
and desolation. But along the level of the stream the deep-green grass
shadowed by the hill was lighted up with the pale-purple death-torches
of the poisonous colchicum. After crossing a stubble-field, now
overgrown by the violet-coloured pimpernel, I reached the sinister
pool, fringed with the flag's sword-like leaves and shadowed by willows
and alders. I expected to find the water all in tumult; but no, it had
the dark, solemn stillness of the mountain tarn. The two streams that
poured out of it to meet a little lower down the valley hardly
murmured as they started upon their journey amidst the iris and sedge,
although the body of water was strong enough to turn a millwheel.

There is something that troubles the imagination in the appearance of
this lonely pool for ever silently overflowing, and so deep that
nobody as yet has been able to find the bottom. On the side of the
stony hill close by are some ruined walls of a church and convent,
said to have been built by St. Mamphaise. The peasants of the district
have an extraordinary story with regard to this convent, which is
either the cause or the consequence of the superstitious awe in which
they hold the Gouffre de Lantouy. This legend is to the effect that
the conventual building was once inhabited by women who ate children,
and that a certain mother, whose baby they had kidnapped and eaten,
cursed them so heartily and to such purpose that the _gouffre_ was
formed, and their convent, or the greater part of it, was
supernaturally carried down the hill and plunged into the bottomless
water. The legend also says that those who stand by the pool on St.
John's Eve will hear the convent bell ringing. It not being St. John's
Eve when I was there I was unable to test the truth of this part of
the legend. What I did hear was a raven croaking from the ruin, and
the sound harmonized well with the air of mystery and gloom hanging
over the spot.

There is some historic reason for believing that the convent at
Lantouy was founded by Charlemagne. Very near this spot are the
remains of some ancient fortified works, and the locality is known as
'La domaine de Waïffier.' This name is evidently the same as Waïfré.
There is reason to believe that the last of the sovereign Dukes of
Aquitaine made a stand here when pursued by his implacable enemy Pepin
le Bref. The people pronounce the word 'Waïffier' as though it
commenced with a 'G.'

Towards evening I recrossed the Lot and entered Cajarc. Passing
through the little town, which is not in itself very interesting, I
took a path winding up the side of the hill, at the base of which lies
the burg. I wished to see a cascade that has a local reputation for
beauty. I reached the foot of a high, fantastic rock, from the ledges
of which masses of ivy hung woven together like a veritable tapestry
of nature. A small stream descended from the uppermost ridge upon a
rock covered with moss showing every hue of green, and then into a
dark pool below. The hillside above the cascade has been extensively
tunnelled for phosphate. An Englishman discovered the value of the
site, and dug a fortune out of it. There are several phosphate-mines
in this district, all more or less connected with British enterprise.
Phosphate inspires respect for Englishmen here, for it has been the
means of giving a great deal of employment and rendering petty
proprietors, who could barely get a living out of their thankless
soil, comparatively rich. The inhabitants, therefore, consider English
speculators in the light of public benefactors, and such they have
really proved, although the motive that brought them here was scarcely
a philanthropic one. Neither the French nor the British public has any
conception of the extent to which the mineral resources of France are
worked by the English.

Cajarc, although it looks like a village to-day, was once a fortified
town of considerable importance in the Quercy. Its inhabitants offered
an obstinate resistance to the English on several occasions. In 1290
they refused to swear fealty to the King of England until their lord,
the Bishop of Cahors, gave them the order to do so in the name of the
King of France. Subsequently in the same and the following century,
when the Ouercynois were again in arms against the English, various
attempts to take the town by surprise failed through the vigilance and
courage of the burghers. To punish them, the English, in 1368,
destroyed their bridge across the Lot, of which some remnants may
still be seen.

After leaving Cajarc in the morning I was soon alone with Nature on
the right bank of the river. Autumn was there in a gusty mood, blowing
yellow leaves down from the hills upon the water and driving them
towards the sea over the rippled, gray surface lit up with cold,
steel-like gleams of sunshine struggling through the vapour. The
wilderness of herbs and under-shrubs along the banks was no longer
aflame with flowers. Dead thistles, whose feathered seeds had drifted
far away upon the wind to found new colonies, and a multitude of
withered spikes and racemes, told the old story of the summer's life
passing into the death or sleep of winter. Yet the river-banks were
not without flowers. A rose, very like the 'monthly rose' of English
gardens, was still blooming there, together with hawkweed, wild


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Online LibraryEdward Harrison BarkerWanderings by southern waters, eastern Aquitaine → online text (page 21 of 24)